Movie review by Greg Carlson
A handsomely mounted production adapting Anthony Swofford’s 2003 war memoir, “Jarhead” arrives in theatres clearly hoping for the kind of attention from audience members and critics that will win it both box office success and Academy Award nominations. Director Sam Mendes, whose first feature effort “American Beauty” netted a shelf of golden statuettes, handles the material with sure-handed ease, but the tone of the film dials down any trace of political opinion, which mitigates a great deal of the movie’s potential power. “Jarhead” works best as the slightly off-center observational account of its central character’s tour of duty in the first Gulf War, and like Mendes’ previous two features, boasts some outstanding acting.
The best trick pulled off by “Jarhead” is the film’s ability to make waiting for combat nearly as compelling as cinematic depictions of the real thing. Mendes tips his hat to a number of signature war films – a scene at the beginning of the movie recalls “Full Metal Jacket” right down to the apoplectic drill instructor – as if to acknowledge a debt and aspire to great company. One of the most memorable moments in “Jarhead” takes place during an adrenaline-fueled screening of “Apocalypse Now” which cuts between Coppola’s indelible Wagner-scored helicopter attack and the faces of young men thrilled at the prospect of participating in their very own mayhem.
The reality of Operation Desert Shield, however, turns out to be nothing like Vietnam, and the bored Marines spend interminable stretches ridiculing one another, masturbating, venting frustrations about strained and faithless marriages, and drinking lots and lots of water. Jake Gyllenhaal, in his most confident and assured performance to date, plays Swofford with a canny combination of enthusiasm and skepticism. Surrounding Gyllenhaal are Jamie Foxx, getting significant mileage from several terrific scenes (especially a monologue in which he bluntly explains his career choice), and a scene-stealing Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Swoff’s troubled friend Troy.
Swoff and Troy are trained as a sniper team, but it doesn’t take them long to realize that given the nature of the conflict, their skills are not likely to be put to the test. The speed and power of American air superiority dashes Swoff’s hopes that he will ever get close enough to a target to squeeze his trigger. The symbolic impotence of Swofford’s situation affords Mendes an opportunity to wring plenty of irony out of several scenes, including an eerie nighttime celebration in which the warriors pour dozens of rounds into a sky lit up by burning oil fields.
“Jarhead” doesn’t include any major battle set-pieces, a distinction which contributes to the strangeness of Swofford’s Gulf War experience. This point might also try the patience of some viewers expecting a more conventional war movie. Mendes’ intelligent detachment, aided by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ sand-and-windswept palette, will strike some as too aloof. Short of the occasional sermonizing that stumbles out of Swofford’s voiceover narration, “Jarhead” keeps its subject matter at a safe distance, even when it should be grabbing it by the throat and shaking it hard.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/7/05.